How to Transition from One Writing Project to the Next [or] Thirty-seven Spokes on the Wheel of Samsara
Some might argue that a stomach is not a thought. Let me explain. Last night, I ate too much. This is not unusual for me, especially in times of transition or stress. But the amount I ate last night and the way my stomach felt during and afterward brought back painful memories of when I was single, lived alone, and counted dinner (eaten alone) as a primary pleasure.
Since meeting and marrying my husband 3 years ago, I’ve eaten dinner alone only a handful of times. In the beginning, I longed for a night alone to eat freely again—to not worry about bad breath, bloating, gassiness, etc.—even as I was grateful to be forced out of my bad eating habits. After a year, I grudgingly came to prefer my husband's company during dinner. Now, I almost always prefer his company. Do you understand how big a win this is, for me and for my marriage?
Lately, though, my husband has been traveling for work, leaving me with nights alone. I’ve found myself reverting to my old habits, spending all week planning what I’ll eat the nights he’s gone, which combination of tastes, flavors, and textures, combined with which television show or movie, will create the perfect alchemy for bliss.
Last night, after my husband left for Nashville, I took my tray to the couch, tuned in to Queer Eye, and started out slowly. Look how slowly and thoughtfully I'm eating, I congratulated myself. After slowly and thoughtfully eating almost an entire container of hummus with vegetables and pita chips, I slowly and thoughtfully ate an entire container of dates, filling each with almond butter (meaning I ate probably 1/3 of the jar of almond butter). And then I slowly and thoughtfully ate half of a container of "asian snacks," those hard, shiny shapes (twists, balls, flowers, half-moons) made primarily of rice, gluten, sugar, and salt.
I don't know enough about what other people eat to know if that amount of food seems excessive. My family always joked about how much we ate, especially after most of us became vegan. My father, especially, ate like me—like each meal was his last. When my husband eats just one serving of pork, potatoes, and salad, he declares himself stuffed. How ludicrous, I think. How can one serving ever be enough?
This is what I know: after the hummus, I wasn't hungry, but I wanted to watch at least one more episode of Queer Eye and hadn't had anything sweet yet. I know that about halfway through the dates, I felt the fullness heavy in my gut, but the show wasn't over, and dates and almond butter, after all, are healthy. I know that after the dates, my stomach hurt, and I knew it was foolish to even think of eating more food—but by then I'd already begun a third episode, and watching TV is a waste if you’re not doing something else, and wasn’t this binge a way to both celebrate my aloneness and comfort myself in it?
I finished the evening with a painful and swollen stomach, a feeling that, combined with my shame and regret, lasted well into the next day.
Still, I would argue that this is not a stomach problem or a food problem. It's a thought problem. It's been a thought problem for decades, since I was a teenager. The thoughts: memories, rationalizations, scoldings, obsessions. Thoughts create anxiety, an emotion that keeps me from feeling other emotions—loneliness, sadness—too deeply.
Attempts at Diagnosis
My thought pattern could be associated with 'orthorexia,' the eating disorder of being overly anxious about eating only healthy food. But the 'symptoms of orthorexia' list from the National Eating Disorders Association does not include overeating healthy food as a way to make up for not eating junk food. Orthorexia aligns more with anorexia in that you eat less and less as you cut out food groups you deem unhealthy. I’m the opposite, eating more and more of the few remaining food groups I haven’t cut out.
When I was in my 30s, I briefly considered attending Overeaters Anonymous meetings, but their mission of weight loss wasn’t what I needed, and a skinny person showing up to sit in a circle with fat people wouldn't go over so well. Overweight friends, coworkers, and even strangers have commented on my thinness so often, dealing snark under the guise of compliments, that I didn't want to invite more envy and hate.
And so for many years I felt stuck with my overeating, angry with myself for being so weak, for having no willpower. I’d rack myself with guilt but still overeat, always at night, always (and necessarily) accompanied by television, and then fast the next day until my stomach felt normal again, usually around lunchtime. I’d full-out binge on Friday and Saturday evenings, my reward for a week of work. The post-binge fasting didn't feel like punishment; it felt like healing.
Some readers might point out here that my eating pattern sounds bulimic, but if so, I’d argue it’s in such a mild form that it’s undiagnosable. I never make myself vomit (or desire to); I don’t go on fad diets; I don’t steal or hoard food; I don’t constantly check in the mirror for flaws; I’m not overly concerned about my body weight; I have regular and normal periods; I am, despite being chronically tired, mostly strong and healthy, with healthy nails and hair and skin. I rarely get sick.
So for a long time, I had what looked like a borderline eating disorder that didn't fit into any known category and wasn't serious enough to warrant medical or psychiatric attention. I'd lament to my parents--I ate too much again last night; have to fast today!—but my health-conscious parents believed that fasting could cure anything, and I remained at an enviously stable and thin 120 lbs. for years.
Overall, it's been hard to convince people I have a problem or that it might be worth taking seriously. And while my eating habits have certainly stabilized over the past few years, that desire to binge alone with TV lurks too close for comfort. My husband tries to be understanding, but he's a recovering alcoholic. From his point of view, I might eat too much food sometimes, but it's food—and mostly fairly healthy food at that. What's the problem? Get over yourself. (He doesn't say that to me. I say it to myself.)
A therapist once tried to convince me I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. When I read the book she gave me and returned with a long list of reasons why I didn’t fit the diagnosis, she laughed gently as if the list-making itself were proof. The book heavily emphasized the ritualized compulsions (checking, hoarding, cleaning, making everything symmetrical) people engage in to distract themselves from obsessions (repeated, unwelcome thoughts, often about sex and violence). The compulsions take up hours of time (washing hands, cleaning the same room for hours, for example) and cause great distress. This doesn’t describe me at all, I argued. I can be picky about cleanliness and order in my own home, but I don’t spend hours cleaning; I can get nervous about whether I’ve turned off the stove, but a quick double-check eases my fears. I don’t have a loop of sexual or murderous thoughts running through my brain.
I agreed to see a psychiatrist for further testing. The test didn’t yield significant results, but this doctor seemed determined to assure me that I suffered from OCD. She asked if I picked at my fingers because the jagged edges of skin bothered me, and when I said yes, she nodded sagely and prescribed medication. I took it for a couple of years, and it seemed to ease my food obsessions somewhat, but I quit after growing increasingly nervous about the chemicals and frustrated with how it deadened everything: my ability to cry, my ability to get excited, my libido.
When I told the psychiatrist I wanted to wean off the drug, she snapped at me, some sarcastic comment about foolish people who want to quit medication, and even though I could see that her anger was about something bigger than me, I took it as an excuse to never see her again.
It’s New, It’s Cool, It’s RAAD
As the years passed, I grew more convinced that I didn’t have OCD: anxiety, yes; eccentricities, yes; but not OCD. It wasn’t until I started writing this blog post about my seemingly unique style of eating/thought disorder that it hit me like an epiphany: maybe this is OCD. Holy crap. Do I have OCD? It’s not an OCD described on websites for treatment centers or on television shows, and it’s not a severe OCD. It’s subtle, so subtle that I’m still not sure I should call it OCD. Maybe it’s more like a fraternal twin of OCD.
In fact, if I had to make up a diagnosis for myself, I’d say I have Rules Activated Anxiety Disorder. This kind of OCD--RAAD!—manifests as an obsession with rules: rules I make for myself based on years of observation about how people and society work, and rules other people make for me. I take all rules seriously, even those I think are stupid (I think most of them are stupid), but the most important rules have to do with my quest for perfection. If I’m to be perfect and to make everyone happy, these are the rules I need to follow. If I don’t want my urges (food, sex, buying things) to spin out of control, I must follow these rules. If I don’t want to get too wound up about things, whether with excitement or anticipation or anxiety or anger or sadness, I must follow these rules. If I don’t want to get in trouble (with neighbors, cops, the township, authority figures), I must follow these rules.
Rules also help me avoid decisions (often, with the rules, only one path of action is possible) and avoid work (the rules are in service of efficiency; with ultimate efficiency, I’ll have more time to do what I want). Rules, ironically, create the very space I crave to “let loose,” to “rebel.” In this way, they let me stay a child, flaunting the parent-voice’s rules even as I rely on them to keep me safe. Rules make me feel safe in other ways, too. They keep me under control. They help me know how to get along in different environments. When I’m in a new place or situation, I can’t relax until I know what the rules are. (Although I can’t relax after knowing the rules, either, because I’m worried I won’t follow them just right. I’m one of those people who gets called aside for further examination at security checkpoints; I look nervous. I probably look guilty, too.)
Guilt lies just beneath the surface of everything I do; almost every moment, the questions, “Is this what I should be doing right now?” and “Am I doing this right?” persist in my consciousness, a constant distraction.
I don’t spend hours acting out compulsions, but I do spend a lot of time trying to keep myself from acting compulsively (after all, a perfect person doesn’t act on her compulsions—a perfect person doesn’t have OCD or any form of it). For example, dog hair on the furniture triggers profound anxiety, but I don’t want to be a person who has to vaccuum every day (who has time for that?)—so I cycle through the hair-triggered anxiety and anger repeatedly, trying to stay calm but dreading how hard and time-consuming it will be to vaccuum everything, and in the end probably cause myself more stress than if I just gave in and vaccuumed compulsively.
Also, I spend a lot of energy trying not to appear anxious to others, trying to pretend that the things that bother me don’t bother me so I won’t have to reveal how strangely demanding I am. Because if people saw my inner workings, what makes me spin and worry and rage, they would trip over themselves trying to get away from me. Rules help me avoid this danger.
My ideal self, as I’ve defined her for years, is in perfect health, is strong and flexible, is a perfect environmental steward, is much loved by everyone she meets, is a perfect wife, sister, daughter, stepmother, dogmother, friend, employee, neighbor, acquaintance. She is able, every single goddamned day, to achieve the perfect balance of mental/emotional/physical/spiritual, of work and play, of self and other. She is, every day, productive and happy and creative and energetic. She knows exactly what to do and say in every situation. She is never wasteful of time, money, or resources.
This is what I know: My rules are nothing more than figments of my imagination, illusions that perpetuate the illusion that I can be this ideal self instead of being who I am. Does it matter that I know this? Not so far.
My brain works hard to take these rules and manipulate them into a reason for indulgence. It’s okay to indulge sometimes, especially if you’ve worked hard. It’s okay to indulge in food if it’s healthy. It’s okay to watch TV if you’re eating at the same time—efficient multi-tasking!
If I could stay emotionally uninvolved, these rules—and my loopholes—might work for me. After all, I could simply turn off the TV when I start to feel full. But the rules feed my anger, rebellion, anxiety, and guilt even as I cling to them. Knowing I’ll likely break or misapply the rules sparks all of these emotional reactions even before I start eating, and once I sense myself starting to overeat, I give up. I break the rules, feeling the power of my rebellion, the pain and guilt of my disobedience, and the shame of my lack of willpower, all at once. In short, eating can be a fraught experience.
Some rules for eating:
Some rules for driving (aside from the actual rules of driving):
Some rules for interacting with people:
This is just the beginning. I have rules for clothes shopping, showering, cleaning, calling my mother, gift-giving, tipping, writing, meditating, and more. As stated earlier, I break my own rules often. They make me angry. (You could even argue that I use the rules as an excuse to be angry.) But when I break them, the guilt and anxiety that result can feel at times debilitating.
Rules wreak havoc with a daily schedule. I keep telling myself it’s okay to deviate from the ideal order of tasks, that it’s better to “go with the flow.” But what if the flow takes me to a place far, far away from my to-do list?
Conflict rises when following one rule means I have to break another. For example, when someone is talking my ear off, wasting my time, do I cut her off so I can get on with my day, even though it may hurt her feelings?
Anger rises when other people don’t follow my rules. When my stepkids don’t clean up their toothpaste spatters, when dog owners don’t pick up the poop, when people throw their empty beer cans into the stream or grass on the side of the road, it triggers depths of rage that would probably have given me multiple stomach ulcers by now if I didn’t eat as healthfully as I do. But I can’t confront my stepkids or anyone else without risking hurting their feelings.
Interestingly, as my belief systems and spirituality shift, new ideals replace the old, and I feel them with just as much pressure. For example, I’m starting to believe that my ideal self is not someone who never hurts anyone’s feelings but someone who isn’t afraid to hurt people’s feelings. So now, instead of feeling guilty when I might have hurt someone’s feelings, I’m starting to feel guilty when I’m too cowardly to risk hurting someone’s feelings. RAAD is all about guilt, and guilt will find a way.
Trying to follow these rules means that I need routine. When I do things basically the same way all the time, I know where the risks of breaking rules arise and how to avoid them. We all have routines, but a routine becomes a symptom of RAAD when the thought of changing your routine makes you nervous or defensive (but this is the BEST way to do it, why can’t everyone see that?? Etc.)
That said, RAAD is different from OCD in that the messes in other people’s houses don’t bother me. In fact, I feel a sense of relief and comfort in a mess that is not mine to clean up or live in. I feel like I can relax and not worry about making or being a mess myself when messes don’t bother the person whose house I’m in.
That said, some people live in such states of mess that it makes me suspect they’re depressed. A certain level of mess suggests a giving up on life, the messy mental state spilling out and perpetuating a cycle of stress and disorder. I suspect that people who live messy lives in messy houses would, in most cases, be happier and calmer if they lived more simply and cleanly.
A Quick Summary
How I feel about rules:
How I feel when I break the rules:
Who makes the rules**:
Consequences of breaking rules:
Consequences of RAAD:
What NOT not to do if someone you love has RAAD:
What TO do if someone you love has RAAD:
Note: your response might vary depending on location. If you’re at home when this happens, the above response will suffice. If you’re in a public place that has a posted or otherwise obvious set of rules, and you’re trying to break one of these rules (thus causing great stress to your loved one), it might be wise to set aside your rule-breaking desires temporarily and return alone at a later time to break the rules you want to break.
RAAD people have a tendency to try to make everyone around them follow their rules—even RAAD children can have this power. We don’t feel completely safe and in control unless everyone is on board with our plan. We’re sorry about this. As much as it pains us to say it, we want to remind you that you do not have to live under our thumbs. All you have to do is communicate clearly and kindly about what you are willing and not willing to do. If we react with great anger or despair at your obstinance, try not to take it personally. Remember that the emotional explosion you are witnessing is driven by tremendous fear—and that it will be followed by debilitating guilt and shame. Remember that the rules we want everyone to follow are not truly our own; they were created by critical voices in our head that tell us we need the rules in order to survive.
You can help alleviate our suffering by remaining calm, compassionate, and loving. You can be open to and encouraging of compromise. You can remind us that we don’t have to be perfect. We need to know that we can trust you with our worries and fears, that we will not be demeaned or mocked for them; we need to know that our attempts to explain our reasoning will be met with genuine interest and openness. We need to understand that even if you might not agree to follow all of our rules, you get how important they are to us and are willing to do what you can to help us without compromising your own sanity or comfort. We need to know that you are not going to compromise your own sanity or comfort because we are terrified that we are too much to handle and that you will stop loving us.
Important note: Just because your partner asks you repeatedly to pick up after yourself or help with cleaning does NOT mean she or he has RAAD. It might just mean that you’re a slob, in which case step it up! Be a true partner in your lives together.
Can RAAD be Cured?
Great question! My therapist would tell me to tell those rule-making voices in my head to fuck off. All of this anxiety and guilt are fake anxiety and fake guilt, covers for something deeper and more troubling. Rules fill my head so that I don’t have to face the emptiness the rules crowd out.
I know emptiness would be good for me. I know that if I let myself it experience even briefly, I would realize that it’s not something to dread but to bask in. Allowing my mind to be still, to turn my attention away from the rules and toward the vast empty space that lies behind them, would probably teach me a lot about myself and about life.
Thinking about how great this emptiness would be makes me want to create rules for pursuing it, rules that will surely help me get there more efficiently and safely. Meditate in this way, visualizing this image, for this long, at this time of day, etc.
And I wonder why I’m so tired all the time.
I don’t know if I can conclude anything here. In fact, now that I’ve defined myself so thoroughly, the definition/diagnosis feels inaccurate. It feels like it describes an old self, or at least a self that is passing away in its influence even as it still grips me from time to time. I suppose I should be happy or relieved to find that even after such an examination, I elude definition. But eluding definition is not very neat or clean now, is it?
Here’s what I know. I know that the key to life, for me, is to relax. I know that the key is NOT creating more rules to help combat the rules I already have. I know that, for me, the key is NOT medication. I know I’ll be essentially “cured” when I can confidently, consistently reject guilt and fear and move forward without worrying about the mistakes I’ll make or about what people will think. But I also know that creating that new version of my ideal, perfect self—the self who doesn’t struggle with RAAD—is not the answer, either. So maybe the answer, for now, is to be who I am and try my best to counter the rules with detachment and humor. In other words, be who I am, but lightly.
Meaning does not exist until someone starts to look for it. ~ Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
My next hair appointment is in a week. I’ve been growing out my hair for about 6 months now, and the frustration has built to a point of such urgency that I think about my hair length all day: every time I look in the mirror, every time I talk to someone and imagine what they’re thinking about my hair, every time I go to bed and lie awake mentally listing pros and cons of cutting it.
The Question: Should I cut it all off or stay the course?
The Answer: There is no right or wrong answer.
Why I’m Writing This 9-Page Essay: Because there is most definitely a right answer, and by God I will discover it.
Opening Argument: Almost everyone I know loves my hair short. I like it short.
Opening Rebuttal: During a recess in 3rd grade, I looked at the glass doors of the school building and saw my reflection. The timing was perfect, my head tilted back and turned to the side, and a long, wavy, richly blonde-brown mane of hair falling down my back. That image of myself and that glorious hair has enamored me since, despite the changes to my face, despite the changes to my hair, despite the many less flattering images of myself in pictures and reflections since.
Questions of Context
(I’m a white American 44-year old straight ciswoman with fairly thick, wavy hair that tends toward frizzy curl in the back and flatness in the front. Untreated, my hair color is a dead-mouse-brownish-gray. Treated, it’s blonde with pinkish tones.
I had shoulder-length or longer hair, mostly, until my 40s. Then, at 41, I cut it all off, saying goodbye to an old life and beginning a new one that included a relationship with a man who loved short hair and whom I’d marry a year later. I’d gone short once before in my 20s but have cut up or hidden all of the pictures from that time. It was a Walmart salon special, and I could have done better if I’d cut my hair myself, with my eyes closed. But I didn’t know that at the time. I trusted the evidence: short hair would never work for me.
I moved through my 30s with a fairly stable look. Long, minimally styled hair that looked great immediately after the salon appointment but unkempt and lumpy for the next two months. Not one to waste money on styling products or time on blow-drying, I kept my routine cheap and simple: wash and condition, air dry, brush, then either wear it down or pull it back in a barrette or ponytail. I didn’t particularly like my hair but didn’t know what else to do with it.
My first move toward change came when I bought a pink wig. I bought it on a whim, thinking it would be fun to wear around the house, and I loved it. Cut in a short bob with bangs, it transformed my face. It made me look chic and sassy and bold. I never wore it out of the house, but I wished I could. A few months later, high on new love and feeling reckless, I took the wig to my stylist and asked for the same cut. She gave me exactly what I asked for, but alas, it looked ghastly. It served its purpose, though, because it left me nowhere to go but shorter. A week later, I returned to the salon with this picture of Charlize Theron and emerged a short-hair convert.
Questions of Maintenance
“In order to have long hair you have to have your needs in life taken care of.” ~ TIME magazine
It was so easy. SO easy. It seemed that my hair was made to be short. It’s thick wavy texture meant that, with a great cut, it held whatever style I fingered it into, with just a little help from a styling product I splurged on. My hair looked good every day with no more than a minute of effort. My fiance loved it, and my friends raved. I felt edgy and fierce. I no longer felt like a naïve country girl when I went to a wedding, a restaurant, the grocery store. [Side story: I went on a date once with a smooth, urbane graduate student from Trinidad who asked me if I was Amish. I could tell he meant to insult, and even though I knew his critique was more about my demeanor than my style, it made me self-conscious about my plain long hair, pulled back in a barrette that night.]
I loved the cutting process itself: the weight falling off, the sound of the scissors, the feel of the razor on my neck. It turned out that I liked the shape of my head.
After a year, I started trying different styles that required some growing out. I tried a very mild faux-hawk style, which I liked. I tried letting the top grow even longer and bleaching it all white, then dying it a light pink. I loved it all.
Why wouldn’t I keep this amazing hairstsyle forever? Several reasons: 1) dreams about long hair, 2) restlessness, and 3) repeated glimpses of my profile in the mirror.
Questions of Facial Fitness
“Hair grows back, everyone always says, and it’s true, but it takes a long time, and there are certain things one should not attempt just because the fallout is temporary […]. I’d include on this list hacking off all your hair when you lack both the cheekbones and the chutzpah to waltz out into the world unadorned.” New York Times
Fashion pundits would say I don’t have the face for short hair. My nose is too big, my eyes too close-set, my chin and mouth too soft. I have neither cheekbones nor chutzpah.
I loved my short hair when I looked at myself head-on or with my head turned back over my shoulder. I avoided using a second mirror to examine my profile because I’ve never liked my profile, and I didn’t want to face (haha) what would surely be a heart-sinking truth. But my hairstylist always insisted on showing me a 360-degree view, and over time, that view began to gnaw at me.
Plus, not everyone loved my hair short. My 9-yr-old niece didn’t say anything, but I could see in her eyes that she didn’t think I was pretty anymore. My mom and sister were polite but reserved.
I began to miss the feeling of a brush pulling at my hair, of my hair blowing freely in the wind (even though I also loved not having hair in my face on windy days or getting hair into my eyes and mouth at night).
I’d argue that if I had chutzpah, neither cheekbones nor profiles nor other people’s opinions would matter. But my chutzpah, much like the pink wig, shows up only in moments when I’m alone, when no one can see it. I began to feel like my bold hair cut was a lie, that I shouldn’t have a hair cut I couldn’t back up with attitude.
Questions of Punishment
“But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.” I Corinthians 11:15, NKJV
There’s nothing worse than having a haircut that requires a sense of personal power to pull off and not having that power. Then the hair looks less like an expression of boldness and more like someone took a razor to your head to punish you.
Punishment haircuts have been a thing for men, women, and children now and through ages past. Kids who disobey their parents, wayward girls who run away from convents, men who desert the battlefield, Circe in Game of Thrones—we seem to know that the best way to humiliate a person is to cut their hair, especially when it goes against the cultural norms for their sex, age group, and time.
A woman from my yoga class got her long hair cut super-short, and I almost recoiled when I saw her; she looked plucked. Do people think I look plucked? I wondered.
Sometimes I’d wake up and look in the mirror and wish for covering—long hair would soften the punishing effect of dark circles under my eyes, of splotchy or pallid skin, the way I looked on the bad days.
Long hair would also provide covering during the following activities:
Questions of Type
“’Inferences and judgments about a person’s morality, sexual orientation, political persuasion, religious sentiments and, in some cultures, socio-economic status,’ [scholar Deborah Pergement] notes, ‘can sometimes be surmised by seeing a particular hairstyle.’” TIME magazine
After that first short cut, I wished the people I had known before (particularly the ex-boyfriends) could see the new me. “This is the true me,” would have been the message. “Bold, unconventional, daring—see what you missed out on?” Later, I wished that the people who had known me only with short hair could see it long. I wanted to show people pictures of myself with long hair, as if to say, “This me, the one with long hair, is who I truly am.”
Who is a long-haired woman? She is passionate, wild, laissez-faire, au naturel, spontaneous, free-wheeling, artistic, self-expressive. She is a mother goddess, environmentalist, animal and nature lover; she isn’t afraid of a mess.
Who is a short-haired woman? She is bold, confident, powerful, stylish, smart, organized, efficient, witty, cerebral. She speaks her mind clearly and articulately, keeps her head, is androgynously sexy.
Who do I want to be? All of the above
My actual self: Values financial prudence (cringes at the cost of hair care, for example). Believes that real beauty is natural beauty but feels ugly next to women who wear makeup and have product-perfect hair. My real self paints her toenails, admires them for a few days, and then removes the polish in a sudden conviction that her nails can’t breath under the chemical veneer. She believes in local, organic, environmentally sustainable products but rarely shops at the farmers’ market because it forces her to talk to people and doesn’t fit easily into her weekly meal plan. She loves yoga but not enough to chant or learn Sansrkit. Health-conscious and not a little OCD, she’s 90% vegan and 10% pasture-raised, grass-fed, free-range meat, even though she has to try hard not to think about the word “flesh” when she’s eating it. She doesn’t put a lot of time into her appearance, in both a boastful way and an insecure, depressed way. She tends toward depression. She doesn’t want to stand out even though she desperately wants to stand out. She shaves her legs but not her pubic hair. She likes to cut, prune, shorten, clean out—hair, essays, plants, clothes, books. She avoids plucking or trimming her eyebrows for fear she’ll remove them completely in an OCD frenzy. And yet she sometimes envies other people’s overgrown yards, cluttered houses, messy lives—they seem so much more real than hers. She feels like she’s spent most of her life waiting—for things, for events, for people, for hair to grow—and yet she is quiveringly impatient. She wants to be a long, lean, sexy, outdoorsey, ponytail and cut-off jeans type of woman. Or she wants to be a short-haired, sassy, punk-androgynous, subversive type of woman. An astrologer told her, after reading her natal chart, “You’re two people.” “Thank you,” she replied.
Things I could be with short hair:
But wait, you’re thinking. Why can’t you be any or all of those things regardless of your hairstyle? Also, do you even know anything about computers or lions?
Questions of Science
Age slows down hair growth. It’s easy to worry that if I cut my hair now, it will never be long again, that this upcoming decision will be a decision for the rest of my life. Who do I want to be when I'm old?
According to a UK hair clinic, hair grows in three phases: anagen, catagen, and telogen. In the anagen phase, the hair grows about ½ an inch every four weeks; this lasts about 2-7 years (the time is determined largely by genetics). In the catagen phase (1-2 weeks), growth slows as the hair prepares itself for the next phase. During the telogen phase (3-4 months), the hair rests, and older hairs will shed to allow for new growth. Obviously, each hair follicle goes through the stages at its own pace so that we always (hopefully) maintain a full head of hair. Given the above, the maximum length hair can grow in an anagen phase is 18-30 inches.
My hair seems to grow about a half inch every 6 weeks. If my anagen phase lasts the maximum of 7 years, my hair will have grown about 30 inches by the time I’m 51, putting it about 2-3 inches above the small of my back. To get to my target length—let’s say 20-25 inches, to account for wave—will take about 4½ to 6 years. That’s assuming I remain healthy, that my hair maintains its current growth rate, and that my hair isn’t damaged enough to break before it reaches full length.
I might be able to increase the growth rate to ½ inch a month or more by taking supplements like collagen or Hawaiian spirulina, in which case I could reach my target length in 3-4 years, hopefully before age catches up with me.
The part of me that loves a challenge is clamoring to take it on. My OCD loves numbers and calculations, loves planning for optimal health. It tries to tell me that not taking on this challenge will make me a quitter, will prove that I’m weak-willed and morally shallow. This isn’t just about beauty—it’s about courage and fortitude! it will say.
That voice has always been hard for me to resist. It sounds like God, and I want to prove to it that I am worthy, even though I always fail to live up to its standards.
But I also know that following that voice exhausts me. It gnaws and needles, gnaws and needles, to the point that I usually avoid long-term challenges. It’s why I write essays and poems instead of novels. It’s why I don’t cook gourmet meals; it’s why I will never run a marathon, even though that voice wants me to do all of those things, tells me that I am a failure for my inability to commit.
Questions of Philosophy
Questions of Sexuality
“Short hair has become a symbol of being a lesbian, and many lesbians with long hair have felt pressured to cut theirs when they come out.” NCBI
“Men should not look feminine and women should not look masculine! The unisex look is an abomination to the Lord.” True Discipleship
A word on defining myself as “straight”: I am straight in that I’ve never had or sought a lesbian encounter and have always been attracted to men. I was uncomfortable knowing that my short hair would lead some strangers to question my sexuality. Sometimes people at the market where I worked for awhile called me “boy” or “young man.” To have the cornerstone of my identity misread felt both embarrassing and a tiny bit liberating. Part of me enjoyed the sheepish surprise on their face when they saw me up close, but still…I began to wear mascara every day and wondered whether it was finally time to pierce my ears.
At home, though, I sometimes liked the sexy androgyny of having short hair and wearing a t-shirt and jeans, maybe because I knew my husband liked it, too. Short hair spurred my imagination. Looking like a boy, it was easier to imagine what it would be like to be attracted to a woman. I could imagine that it might be a nice feeling to kiss a woman or touch her skin. I could imagine the fun of playing the man in a sexual encounter. I could imagine being turned on if my husband wore lacy panties, for example, and I had a strap-on. Would my imagination have taken such turns if I hadn’t cut my hair so short? Do I care?
Questions of Identity
I cut my hair short at a time when I was embarking on several major life changes all at once. Within the span of two years, I fell in love, moved in with my boyfriend and his two kids (who were with us 3 nights a week), quit my teaching job, bought a house with my boyfriend, moved to that new town, quit my market job, got a new full-time job running a tutoring center, got married (at 3 separate celebrations), quit that job, started eating animal products after being vegan for 20 years, got a new dog, started part-time editing/writing work from home, wondered almost every month if I was pregnant, and cut off all of my hair.
So maybe my drive to grow out my hair is partly a drive to return to the self I feel like I lost along the way. And I did lose her, understandably. She changed in some ways she needed to change, but she also repressed much of herself for the sake of her marriage and her new role as stepmother. Part of me wants to have long hair again because it feels like symbolic way to bring the old Cindy into the new Cindy’s life, to not lose her again. And the thing is: it feels like it’s working, like my selves are aligning as my hair gets longer. Surely this is a case of correlation being confused with causation. Surely the cause is more likely all of the therapy, journaling, meditating, and reading, along with the natural growth that occurs as my husband and stepkids and I all get used to our new lives as a family. Right?
Questions of Divination
My interpretation: In the past, you thought more about your work than about your hair. Now, you’re all caught up in this indecision, but don’t forget that no matter what you decide, you’ll change your mind. You’re easily bored. Case in point: You can’t stay interested in a job more than a year or two, you rearrange furniture frequently, and you love the the excitement of going into a salon and coming out with a different look.
A deeper interpretation: Hair is not the problem here. The problem is that you feel lost in your life. You are trying to manage your own time, to write, to study, to start a Reiki and Tarot practice, and it’s going slowly, in fits and starts or not at all. A haircut offers stimulation—something new and exciting—but that excitement will soon fade, and you may find yourself wanting long hair again. Your ego is using your hair as a way to distract you from your real work: creative self-expression for the purpose of healing and connection.
Questions of Other People's Opinions
I ask people, “Do you like my hair better long or short?” It turns out that most people are not, for some reason, as invested in my hair length as I am. Aside from one friend who expresses her adamant preference for short hair whenever I see her, “I like it both ways,” is the usual answer.
My father preferred long hair. But he preferred it the way my husband prefers short hair: indiscriminately. I wanted to say to my father—and now to say to my husband—“Look at me, at my face, at its contours, its profile—do you think short hair flatters THIS face, THIS figure?”
My husband came home from work yesterday and kissed me. “You look nice today,” he said.
“Don’t confuse me,” I said.
My husband’s advice: If you have any doubts, don’t cut it yet. But I know he prefers it short. In the end, how much will I be able to discount his opinion?
The day before yesterday, my neighbor saw me and said, “Your hair’s getting long!”
“Yes,” I said, “but I might decide to cut it all off again soon.”
“Well it’s super-cute right now,” she said.
“Thanks!” I said. ARGGH!!! I thought.
When other people fail, I turn to pictures, poring over the pictures of myself with long hair and short hair, separating into piles the good pictures from the bad and then counting how many of each are with short v. long hair. But that’s not a fair method; I have fewer short-hair pictures to choose from. And the long-hair pictures I like now are pictures that I didn’t like before, when I had long hair.
Questions of Fantasy
It all goes back to 3rd grade and the fantasy that with long hair I have a chance at beauty that I don’t have with short hair. If gloriously long hair falls around my face, hiding the flaws in just the right way, my face will appear, in flashes, exquisite.
What would it mean to give up the hope of being beautiful? What if I finally accept what mirrors and pictures have told me all along—that my adult face and hair do not and never will meet traditional standards of beauty? My face is soft in the wrong places, bold in the wrong places. It’s not symmetrical. My hair is not glossy and smooth, falling in ringlets down my back.
The women in my life who read this will rush to reassure me, “Oh, but you’re beautiful!” To which I will say, I know. Thank you. But I’m not asking for compliments and reassurance. I’m ready, finally, for honesty. I want to accept who I am and this face I have. When I’m gone, my loved ones aren’t going to say, “We miss her, but we wish her nose had been smaller.” They’re going to miss me for who I was, for the body I chose to inhabit in this lifetime. Not because it was pretty or not pretty, but because it was me.
Questions Answered (i.e., the part in which I make a decision!)
We’re getting down to the wire here. Hair appointment in 2 days. Yesterday, I was still experiencing drastic swings, almost hourly, in what I thought I’d “decided.” But then the exhaustion finally hit: an exhaustion I earned by writing this essay, by staying for so long with these conflicting thoughts.
And in the silence brought on by exhaustion, the still, small voice emerged. This is what it said: maybe you don’t want long or short hair. Maybe you want to stay where you are, at this stage that can both stress and charm you. You like how your hair curls softly around your face in a way that neither hides nor overly exposes it. And the awkward days? It’s not pretty, but the wildness and unpredictability of it, the way it wings out from the sides of your head at different trajectories, sort of appeals to you.
Why did I have to write an essay before this option occurred to me? Because a) my thoughts were too overpowering to allow a different voice to be heard; b) I tend to dwell more on the past and on the future than on the present, and c) it didn't seem appropriate--permissible--to like a hair style that didn't look good every day, that might take people aback, put them in a position of not knowing what to say. I shouldn't make anyone uncomfortable, and isn't it my responsibility to "work with what I have," to make myself as beautiful as I can be?
How liberating it is to forget responsibility and pay attention to how I feel, to honor that feeling even it doesn't result in a rational or beautiful solution. Still, I feel some sadness. It's hard to disappoint the people who wanted something different for me. But for now, I'm willing to live with that. And good grief, people: it's just hair.
P.S. A Gallery
I decided to add these pictures after writing the essay, and something interesting happened as I collected them. I saw that my hair is okay long, it's okay with bangs, it's okay short, pink, and blonde. I like all of these pictures of myself, even the terrible one, 3rd in the top row (the pink wig cut). And here's the thing: I didn't used to like them. I do now. Pretty neat, right?
It wasn’t a vacation so much as a work trip to St. Louis, Missouri for the National Conference on Addiction Disorders, where Max’s boss sent us to get ideas for marketing and blog posts. Our late registration made it too difficult to get a flight, so we drove and made a vacation of it, stopping overnight in Indianapolis and wandering through GenCon, one of the largest gaming conferences in the nation, then stopping in Louisville and Cincinnati on the return trip, simply because we’d never been there.
Oh marvel of misfits, oh confluence of nerds. How happy I was to see you walking freely in your freak, safely buffered by your own kind. You are not alone. I wish I had known you in high school. I wish I had had the knowledge, the courage, the permission to dabble in weird with others instead of sitting alone with my fantasy books, enraptured and lonely.
Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, St. Louis
This grammatically baffling and startlingly pricey chain was new to me, but when I bit into the most tenderly succulent salmon I’ve ever eaten, I forgave the extra $9 we had to pay for mashed potatoes to go with it. I have a good job and now you have a good job, Max reminded me when we got the bill. We are upwardly mobile.
Fountain parks, St. Louis
You’re allowed to play in the fountains. Let me repeat that. You’re allowed to play in the fountains. And fountains are everywhere! Fountains and statues and statues in fountains and spigots spurting water from the pavement in rows and kids in swimsuits running, wading, splashing, kids climbing on and in the sculpture of the severed head, peeking out its eye-holes, or clinging to the legs of the water nymph in the hot, hot sun.
Warm Welcome Cookies, Grand Union Station Hotel, St. Louis
They gave us warm chocolate chip cookies, just for checking in! I ate mine sans guilt. Do not spurn what the universe gives you. That’s my new motto.
National Conference on Addiction Disorders, St. Louis
What I learned:
· Some therapists think that having sex a week after meeting someone is abnormal and possibly a sign of sexual addiction. Ruh-roh.
· “Questioning” is a new Q in the LGBTQQ acronym.
· The words “limerence” (finally: a word for my teens and twenties) “cisgender” (I am a ciswoman), “buprenorphine” (controversial medication for opioid addiction) and “frotteruism” (aye, there’s the rub).
· Dialogue about spiritual abuse, or Religious Trauma Syndrome, is gaining ground, even in the DSM-V. And it’s not just about cults. From Rooted in God’s Love, by Ryan & Ryan: Spiritual abuse is a kind of abuse which damages the central core of who we are. It leaves us spiritually disorganized and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God.
· Characteristics of children genetically pre-disposed to addiction: novelty-seeking, chaos-tolerant, anxiety-intolerant, restless, irritable, discontent. What I don’t understand is how you can tolerate chaos but not tolerate anxiety. Doesn’t chaos produce anxiety? Also, isn’t chaos-tolerant a GOOD thing to be?
· PAWS is not just the name of the local animal shelter; it is an acronym for Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome.
· This quote: “Don’t punish people for having symptoms of the disease you’re trying to treat.” In other words, don’t kick people out of addiction treatment when they get squirrely.
Missouri Botanical Gardens, St. Louis
The Lantern Festival was somehow gaudy and subtle and fascinating all at once. On the way out, a parent in front of us was trying to herd his toddler in a straight line. We laughed with him, and Max started singing, “What do you do with a drunken sailor?”
Eero Saarinen’s Arch, St. Louis
On our descent from the top of the Arch in St. Louis, we shared a tiny pod with a family of three, and later that day I had the sudden feeling that they were not people at all but aliens in human suits. I can’t explain this feeling. Maybe it was because they were so talkative and jovial in a smug sort of way, as if they thought they were doing really well at what they had rehearsed.
When the woman monitoring the exit gate from the Arch in St. Louis said goodbye to us and then told Max to tie his shoe, Max, while bending to tie his shoe, yelled, “Don’t tell me what to do!” She laughed. I love that my partner is a natural endorphin-booster for friends and strangers alike.
The Embassy, Louisville
The Embassy is just about the fanciest hotel I’ve stayed in. Look at it! Let’s just say you get a lot more for your $$ in Louisville.
Fried Pickles, Louisville
After days of eating more French fries, potato chips, and varieties of white bread than I’ve ever eaten in so short a time, I vowed on our second to last day to take it easy. No fried foods today! Whole-grains only! But the restaurant we chose in Louisville had falafel wraps, and after days of trying to order vegetarian from conventional menus, I was so excited that I ordered it even though falafel is deep-fried and wrapped in a white-flour wrap. And then Max found out I’d never tried fried pickles and ordered them as an appetizer. And by golly, I ate about 7 of them. Turns out I love fried pickles.
Fake Chicken, Cincinnati
Louisville marked a turn in cuisine that continued in Cincinnati when the first restaurant we saw offered a list of at least 10 dishes made with “Gardein” “meats.” I ordered the fake chicken rice bowl—which even came with brown rice! Oh, Cincinnati!—and happily crunched on bright green snap peas, perfectly julienned celery, and matchsticked carrots.
(Note: On this vegan-friendly menu that marked all vegetarian options with a green “v,” none of the salads—not one—had a “v” next to it. None of the many restaurants we chose throughout the trip offered a vegan salad. How hard is it, chefs?? How can you design gorgeous stir-fry bowls and side vegetables without throwing together a bounteous all-vegetable salad? Why do you use arugula on hamburgers but only iceberg lettuce in salads? )
Waterfront part, Cincinnati
The Ohio River is gooey but hosts some beautiful parks and bridges. Like St. Louis and Louisville, Cincinnati’s waterfront park has geyser-like spigots and fountains for kids to run through, various water-pumping machines, a metal winged pig you can sit in while your parents pull on the ropes to make the wings flap, and a keyboard in the sidewalk connected somehow to chimes hanging above it so you can jump out a melody. The only problem with these parks is that it’s hard for a fun-loving adult to play with so many kids in the way.
Car Ride, I-70
Max does things on car rides my family never would have done, like get off an exit in the heart of major city rather than waiting until you get past it all to a simpler place. He drives fast but takes his time at pit stops. Have an 8 hour drive ahead of us? No matter. We can linger in our swanky hotel room and explore the Louisville waterfront before we leave. I like this attitude, although I couldn’t pull it off on my own. On my own, I want to hurry up and get home.
We listened to a Radiolab podcast on voyeurism that made me cry. We interrupted satellite radio now and then to sample Kraftwerk (new to me), Sparklehorse (new to Max), and Lana del Ray (new to both of us). We talked about our plans for our house and for future vacations. Max wouldn’t let me read to him. We didn’t play the alphabet game.
We listened to an Alan Watts lecture on meditation, and David Foster Wallace’s This is Water commencement address. We talked about anxiety and being addicted to anxiety and how anxiety is worse for me than all of the ‘bad’ food I might eat. I told him about the shift I experienced halfway through the trip, a shift to a darker mood that began so unexpectedly, as always, and about how this time I was able to pull myself out of it in a matter of hours. Max said I probably need to get good at that shift if we ever want to travel to Peru and try Ayahuasca.
Do we want to travel to Peru? Do we want to try Ayahuasca, that warm welcome cookie to the universe? That, my friends, is neither here nor there. Home, on the other hand, is always here. Which is where we are now. Here. Home.
Having discovered only recently that I could download games like Solitaire, Spider Solitaire, and Crossy Road to my phone for FREE, I’ve spent hours (hours!) swiping cards and tapping animals across busy streets. Spider Solitaire was the most addictive. I love putting things in order, so it makes sense that I’d want to play the game excessively during a time in my life that felt full of disorder, with the move, the job search, the uncertain future. Still, I managed to limit my Spider Solitaire time to the bathroom, using it in place of making lists of things to do or groceries to buy. Occasionally I’d slip, my hand reaching for my phone while I watched another episode of Marvel: Agents of Shield or when I crawled into bed at night, promising myself to stop after one more game. But looking back, my draw toward Spider Solitaire was well within the bounds of normal. I could set it down and move on without a profound sense of loss.
Truthfully, I had begun to find it boring. I won too many times, and my senses had grown weary of the monotonous black-and-white color scheme and the fake sounds of cards slapping against each other or whooshing into a pile.
I’ve known about Candy Crush since I joined Facebook many years ago and was immediately baffled and annoyed by the influx of requests to play it. But Max plays it, and observing from a distance the bright candy colors and hearing the sound palette of crunches, pings, bursts, and the deep, sexy voice of positive reinforcement (“Sweet!” “Divine!” “Tasty!” “Sugar Crush!”)—well, it was like witnessing the birth of a star after staring at a plain blue sky. Or like what I imagine an acid trip to reveal—colors, sounds, visions unlike anything in this material plane.
And it’s free. I love free things. So now, after a mere week, I’m up to level 47 or so, and I can’t stop. I stop when I have to: when my battery runs low, when my eyes weigh heavy with exhaustion, or when the game itself stops me because I’ve failed a level too many times in a row. But I do not want to stop. Or rather, I want to stop, I wish I could stop, but I’m afraid of the silence that will follow.
“I can’t stop playing!” I half-joked to Max, while I crushed candies in bed instead of thoughtfully and lovingly releasing the day to calm myself for sleep.
“Darling, darling, sweetheart whom I love so much…” he began.
“I don’t like the sound of this,” I said.
He knelt on the bed next to me, grasped my shoulders, and shook them. “You can do Whatever. You. Want,” he said, “How many times do I have to tell you this?? You can do whatever you want. Do what makes you happy.”
I am highly skeptical of this viewpoint for several reasons.
a) Does Candy Crush make me happy? Yes, it’s delightful, and yes, I look forward to playing it, and yes, it helps ease the sometimes awkward transition of figuring out how to live with the person I love without having to make every moment we’re together about us. But happiness? Does happiness usually have an undercurrent of guilt and fear that I’ve lost control? Is happiness wanting to slide the quilt’s squares forward and sideways to create rows of three or more? Last night, during my dream of people killing each other, I saw, overlaying the scene as if in another dimension, the Candy Crush board, people shifting and wiping themselves out in rows.
b) Serious people--spiritual people—do not play silly games to distract themselves from their thoughts. Instead, they allow the dark thoughts to rise so that they can sit with them, acknowledge them, and then let them go.
c) Won’t engaging in worthwhile activities make me happier in the long run?
“Being serious about life is a major strategy of the separated self, which recognizes its own seriousness as necessary to maintain its separation.” ~A Course of Love
“There might be many practical reasons to cite for your happiness’ demise, but in the loneliness that comes with its loss you will wonder, at least briefly, why the choice for practicality needed to be made. Yet if the separated self can look back and see that it chose being right over being happy, it will congratulate itself despite its unhappiness and say, ‘I did the right thing.’ It will see itself as victor over the foolish dreams of happiness and say how glad it is that it came to its sense before it was too late.” ~A Course of Love
There’s nothing like taking quotes out of context to support one’s own vices, but it’s quite true that my main goal in life has been to be both right and good, and that when I make a choice for duty—a choice that supports my daily list of ‘shoulds’—I feel proud and righteous, and have probably mistaken both feelings for happiness.
The other night, Max and I watched a documentary of Alan Watts, the philosopher and writer who spoke so eloquently about Taoist teachings. The documentary showed a contemplative, kind, gently funny man walking in the woods, practicing calligraphy, making traditional Chinese tea; if I didn’t know better, I would assume he lived his whole life this way, so centered and spiritual that only the most dedicated could follow in his path. But Alan Watts died of complications of alcoholism. I wish the documentary had included that. I want to know how Watts drank (in secret?), what he felt like when he drank (guilty?), and whether he felt his drinking compromised his spirituality. Below is an excerpt from an interview with Taoist teacher Gia-fu Feng, a friend of Alan Watts.
You’ve mentioned Alan Watts several times and I know that you’ve been with him when he was teaching. What was he like to be with?
You see Alan Watts was very creative. When he drinks he’s very clever. He was in a class, you know, at night time, he was all drunk. But his lectures were never boring. He was a tremendous entertainer. He said, “I’m an entertainer, I’m no Buddhist philosopher.”
Alan Watts actually died from alcohol, didn’t he?
Oh yeah. At that time he drank whisky by the bottle.
But how could that tie in with the Tao?
That’s from the Tao! The fact that he drank is totally in tune with the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove-his utter disregard for convention. One of the sages, a famous poet called Liu Ling, had a servant who followed him carrying a jug of wine and a spade. In this way he always had some wine to drink and his servant would be ready to bury him if he dropped dead during a drinking bout! It’s in the Tao. So Alan Watts’ drinking is quite Taoistic.
I’m not at all sure I agree that alcoholism can be Taoistic or that Alan Watts didn’t drink to avoid something about himself on some level, but it makes me wonder: if a vice is embraced and relished without guilt or self-hatred, would it look and feel different from addiction? In other words, if I reframe my obsession with Candy Crush as a Taoistic disregard for convention, will I feel better? (Yes.) If I play without guilt (instead of with the usual battle between guilt and a rebellion against guilt), will I tire of it more quickly? Let’s find out.
You can tell from the picture that it was a recliner. You can probably see the dark green fabric with diagonal rows of rust-colored flowers. You can’t see that it was especially worn on the seat, pilled and coarse. You can’t see the faint but caked-on brown patch of something I tried not to think about that had been there since I inherited it.
It was my grandma’s chair, one of a line of recliners in her eternal quest for a chair that would soothe her polio-sensitized neck and back. Polio notwithstanding, extreme sensitivity regarding physical comfort runs in the family, and it’s usually focused on one particular item that never seems to fit “just right”—whether it’s chairs, mattresses, shoes, or bras.
Like my grandma, I like a good chair. When I sat in her chair and pronounced it good, my grandma pronounced it mine. “I want to get a new one anyway,” she said, when I protested. I should have known better; she had recently given me her new globe because I said I liked it.
That was about 15 years ago. I still have the globe, too, even though the capital of Myanmar has since changed from Yangon to Naypyidaw.
I’ve had other chairs and couches in my various homes but have sat almost exclusively in the green chair, even when I grew restless, impatient with myself for being such a creature of habit. That chair was my station for all of my single years—the place I ate, the place I read, the place I wrote letters, papers, poems, and slobbery journal entries, the place I talked on the phone, the place I watched TV. In the many apartments I rented as a single person, I set up my chair station in a corner near an outlet and surrounded it with lamp, Kleenex box, pens, piles of books and notebooks, and my glass of water. When I sit down to work, I don’t want to have to leave.
If I dropped into the corners a raisin, a pen, a piece of popcorn, or a salad-dressing coated sunflower seed, they fell directly through to the floor, so that all I had to do was feel under the chair skirt at the side to retrieve them.
Aside from being a little ugly, the chair was perfect. But it sits now on display at CentrePeace, a Goodwill-type organization here in town, and I’m sitting in my boyfriend’s cabin in a non-reclining, too-soft chair that doesn’t hit my lower back in just the right way or have a place for me to lean my head. My phone is charging five feet away from me, my books and notebooks are stacked on the table across the room, and I can reach neither lamps nor Kleenex from here.
Is it worth it? I ask myself. Is living with the man I love and embarking on a new life together worth the loss of a good chair?
I could have kept the chair; we would have found some place to store it until we move to our new house next month. In the new house, I could have set up my station in the living room once more or put the chair in the basement. But we already have a collection of old furniture for the basement, and parents will give us used-but-like-new matching chairs and a couch for the living room, and it was time. The green chair was my life as a single person. I’m starting a new life now, and yes, it’s worth a thousand green chairs.
I sat in my chair on the morning of my move, surrounded by stacks of boxes and empty bookshelves. I appreciated how the chair curved into my back and neck just right; I fingered its rough, pilled fabric; I closed my eyes and told myself “this moment is all there is,” stretching my body and my chair into the moment’s eternal space.
My grandma now lives in a nursing home for those with Alzheimer’s; she has a narrow bed in the room she shares with another woman, and the only place to sit is an upright wooden chair with minimal padding. While most of my grandma’s family—her sisters, her nieces and nephews, her children, her grandchildren—would think that moving in with your boyfriend is sinful, my grandma wouldn’t care. She had a few boyfriends in the years after her first husband’s death and scandalized the family by spending nights with one of them. She would, I know, be happy for me.
I thanked the chair. I wished it well in its future. I may have cried just a little.
And then Max came, and we picked up the rental U-Box, and we put the chair in his pickup and dropped it off at CentrePeace on our way back to U-Haul, and that was that.
On my fifth birthday, I remember waking up in my top bunk, excited but sober in the face of a new year. When my mother came in to say good morning, I gave her my blanky, my dear, dear blanky, and said, “Put this away. I don’t need it anymore.” She looked surprised. “Are you sure, honey?” I was sure. I was five, after all. It was time to grow up.
“Contact with another human. Herb Asher shrank involuntarily. Oh Christ, he thought. He trembled. No, he thought. Please no.” – Philip K. Dick, The Divine Invasion
“You must forgive God for creating a world in which you cannot be alone.” –A Course of Love
It’s true: there are a lot of people in the world. And like Herb Asher, I’ve had a hard time with that. I have felt the tightness in my stomach when sitting in a group, worried that I’m not saying enough or that I’ll say the wrong thing, worried that no one likes me as much as they’re pretending to like me, worried that they may have liked me at first but will like me less and less the more they talk to me.
I have skulked awkwardly around the edges of clusters of people talking, looking for a space to insert myself. I have quietly given up and left, going home to nurture my embarrassment into defiance. I am not like them, and I don’t need them anyway. I don’t need that person, I have scoffed, or that person. It’s the superiority complex of the shy, a defense mechanism against hating yourself.
I don’t want to be Herb Asher, alone in a pod on an alien planet, thinking I’m happy as long as I can be alone and fantasize about this or that celebrity. Instead, I want to learn to be alone with other people, alone in a way that means being centered and calm, unshaken by anxiety about what anyone thinks.
I want to forgive God. I want to be the social creature I was made to be. Plus, I want to do what I’m told, whether it’s to forgive God or be nice to others. I want to be good. I (“You do not have to be good,” Mary Oliver says. But what does she know of life’s pressures, a lone poet and her wild geese?)
Geese are never alone. I want to be a goose, to travel with others in lovely symmetry without having to think about it too much. Just be a goose doing my goose thing with other geese.
“Therefore, ‘come out from among them and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.’” –2 Corinthians 6:17
There’s something here beyond social anxiety, something to do with Bible verses like the one above, something instilled in me about the nature of difference and oneness. What’s going on here? What is the real fear?
Possibility 1: Fear of touching everyone inappropriately.
What if I relax so much that I lose my sense of self and lean into someone? Worse, what if I snuggle in close? I want to touch and be touched, and I guard myself against both, afraid it will go too far. It’s like the fear of crying because you might not be able to stop.
What’s too far? Sex, I suppose. In moments of panicky self-analysis I’ve wondered if I’m the kind of person who has to have sex with people to feel comfortable around them. But on a less weird and more practical level, I’m afraid I’ll misread cues and make everyone uncomfortable. Or maybe I’m afraid that if I lean into someone too long, I won’t know how to return to myself. So don’t go losing yourself with everyone, I tell myself. Pick one person. But what if that’s a catch 22? What if my fear of intimacy with the world keeps me from intimacy with the one person I’ve picked?
Last weekend, I attended my boyfriend’s uncle’s funeral. One of the family members sat next to me, crying. I wanted to express my sympathy with more than a look or a sad smile. I wanted to comfort her with affection. The women in the pew in front of me were patting each other’s knees. Could I reach this person’s knee without sliding forward in the pew? Would my touch be an intrusion on her private moment? I quickly reached out and rubbed my hand up and down her leg. She jerked a little, probably startled, and it took some quick thinking on my part to not snatch my hand away in embarrassment. Instead, I switched to her shoulder, but the damage was done. My ego grasped onto that leg rub and tortured me with it the rest of the day. That’s something a lover would do! Why rub? Why not just pat? Why such long strokes? Why are you allowed in public?
All of this is to say that I think my deepest nature is to connect and to comfort, and I’m afraid that if I let that part of myself free, I’ll be trespassing boundaries right and left and lose myself in the process.
Possibility 2: Fear of being like everyone else.
The fear of touching, fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of looking stupid—these are but shadows of another fear: if I join the world, nothing will distinguish me or make me unique or special or better.
As a kindergartner, I learned that being separate—being preternaturally obedient, in my case—won me admiration from my teacher. Since (and even before) then, I’ve (mostly subconsciously) sought distance from the crowd of my peers. Whether by getting good grades, following rules, adopting a restricted diet, or simply being my genetically thin self, I have separated myself from the pack.
Self-help books and Myers-Briggs would label me an introvert. It’s easy to buy into this label and imagine myself deserving of special understanding. But labels are part of the separation that we imagine we must maintain in order to survive this world. Introverts can write as many books as they want, trying to get people to understand them, but in the end, that just creates further separation: us v. them.
If I stop separating myself, if I stop trying to be different or better, then what am I? And who do I think is going to love me more for my separation? God? That’s what I used to think, at least. Trying to be good separates you from the majority who don’t try so hard. And shouldn’t my sacrifice, my noble struggle for goodness, warrant special love, whether from God or people? If I give up that struggle, then what?
Possibility 3: Fear I’ll get stuck in illusion.
If I give up my struggle toward enlightenment so that I can ‘hang’ like a normal person, I might get stuck in the illusion instead of being able to transcend it. I’ll get caught up in other people’s problems, complaints, gossip, negativity. And because I still want to connect with people despite my competing desire to be different and better, I sometimes default to complaining a lot to try to make myself seem ‘down-to-earth,’ to make myself seem real. Which brings up my ongoing complaint: why all of this sitting and talking anyway? Why can’t we just play a game instead? Dutch Blitz, for example, is vonderful goot fun, and I can never get anyone to play it with me.
My new trick for handling social situations, adapted from this book by my friend Peter Santos:
Before a social engagement, protect yourself energetically. After a brief meditation to calm and center yourself, imagine your aura pulling in close to you and then imagine a circle of white light surrounding it. In this egg of light, you are perfectly safe. In this egg, you can relax and interact with people without fear. In this egg, you can look past people’s ego-driven behavior to their true nature. You can see that you are One with everyone.
Does it work? Sometimes. When it doesn’t, when I do something awkward like rub a crying person’s leg, I tell myself, “let it be.” I tell myself to stop punishing myself for my awkwardness. Instead, just allow it. Accept it. Trust that I will be forgiven.
And finally, here’s the full paragraph from which the beginning quote is taken. I love it for how it knocks the wind out of me.
“You must forgive reality for being what it is. Reality, the truly real, is relationship. You must forgive God for creating a world in which you cannot be alone. You must forgive God for creating a shared reality before you can understand it is the only one you would want to have. You have to forgive this reality for being different than you always imagined it to be. You have to forgive yourself for not being able to make it your own, because you have realized the impossibility of doing so. You have to forgive yourself for being what you are, a being who exists only in relationship. You have to forgive all others for being as you are. They too cannot be separate, no matter how hard they try. Forgive them. Forgive yourself. Forgive God. Then you will be ready to begin learning just how different it really is to live in the reality of relationship.” –A Course of Love
I’m knocking at Aamilah’s door, here to meet her and begin tutoring her in conversational English. Aamilah is Saudi Arabian, and as I stand here outside her door, listening to her move about inside as the minutes pass, I wonder if not answering the door right away is some kind of Saudi cultural thing and whether I should keep knocking or text her or just wait.
Here’s a cultural thing: cake, dates, almonds, rice snacks—all laid out on her coffee table. It’s a hospitality I’ve encountered before, when I lived in the Philippines and when I visited my Italian college friend’s home. It’s lavish, and it worries me. How can I ever deserve all of this or even adequately appreciate it? Should I have brought something to contribute?
Aamilah (not her real name) is young and pretty, with long dark hair and lovely caramel skin. We smile at each other and spill out a jumbled mix of introductory words and syllables. We’re nervous. She fills our tiny teacups with what looks like hot miso broth, cloudy and a light yellowish color. “It’s Arabic coffee,” she says. “Have you had it?” I haven’t. I can’t figure out what it tastes like.
“Is it regular coffee? I mean, from coffee beans? Caffeine?” I adjust my questions, seeing her confusion. She doesn’t know the word ‘caffeine,’ and it takes our next four meetings of halting conversation and Google searches for me to figure out what exactly it is: real coffee but with the addition of saffron and/or cardamom. That’s what it tastes like, I realize: cloudy saffron water.
“We to like, uh, to eat the dates? With the coffee? It is, uh, tradition?” she explains, indicating the dates. These are not the usual Deglet Noor dates of East Coast grocery stores, tough and sugary. These dates are small, glossy, and so soft that they melt into honey on my tongue.
Aamilah moved here with her husband and daughter while her husband attends school, and they’ll return to Saudi Arabia to live after he graduates. I have no problem understanding her English, but she stumbles often on vocabulary and mixes up syntax. She often catches herself switching genders, calling her daughter “he” and her husband “she.” I’ve taught and tutored writing for many years, but this is my first time tutoring conversation, and I’m not sure whether I should keep correcting her or just talk with her, asking questions and supplying and defining new words as necessary. I decide on the latter. The point is communication, and I want us to enjoy ourselves.
And so we talk. Our conversations drift from our families to Saudi Arabian weather, landscape, and culture, including dating and marriage, good cities for shopping (Riyadh and Jeddah), and a brief and, on my part, ill-advised foray into the criminal justice system (let’s just say that she had never heard of public beheadings). At our second meeting, we come to the topic of religion, and religion is where we remain, as I have all kinds of questions about Muslim practices, holidays, beliefs, and sects, and she has all kinds of questions about “Trees-chi-ans,” including the difference between Catholics and Protestants.
“So you have three gods?” she asks, when I try to explain the Trinity.
“Well, no, it’s like three parts of God.” I’m trying to explain the belief that Jesus is God. She looks highly skeptical. “Like a rope,” I say. “You know how you can take apart a rope, that it has separate threads? But it’s all one rope?” I feel especially pleased with this metaphor, and she nods.
“Okay, okay,” she says, but I can tell she isn’t convinced. She has heard of Jesus, “Isa” as she calls him, but she believes he was a good prophet who will follow Muhammad when they both return to earth during the end times. “Islam, One God,” she says, holding up her finger. “One.” I try to explain that Christians also believe in one God, that Jesus is part of God, and, when she asks why we have two Bibles, I try to explain the connection between the Old and New Testaments. I explain the practice of animal sacrifice for sins in the Old Testament and how Jesus’s death in the New Testament represented the ultimate sacrifice that covered all sins past, present, and future, making possible our direct connection to God without mediation by temples and priests.
“Isa came back to life?” she asks.
“That is what Christians believe,” I explain. “Because he was God…so he could bring his physical body back to life.”
I feel both amused and chagrined to be sitting here explaining the Gospel like I was taught to do in Sunday School. Other than a brief spurt of evangelical zeal when I was 8 and “witnessed” to a friend in school, I never “shared the good news” with anyone, at first due to shyness and later to a growing seed of rebellion against something I didn’t know how to define. Now, so many years later, I face a challenge my Sunday School teachers would envy—to share the Gospel with a Muslim. I worry a little that I might accidentally convert her. And if I did, what would her husband do?
I admit to an irrational fear of her husband, based on nothing except the knowledge that he is a practicing Muslim and a man. “How is she doing?” he asks me at the end of our session. “Should I reward her? Has she done well?” He’s teasing, and I laugh politely, but when I say, “Yes, she’s doing great, wonderful!” I say it with a tiny lurking fear that if I say anything else he might beat her. I know better. I can blame my reaction on the media coverage of Muslim countries and on my fear of male religious authority in my own tradition. But the fear feels deeper than culture and religion, older than even this lifetime. Wherever it came from, I brought it to this world with me.
Anyway, I could never convert Aamilah even if I wanted to. She loves her faith. She shows me pictures of Mecca during Ramadan. She explains the daily prayers and her study of the Qur’an. She shakes her head dismissively when I ask about the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. If she knew the word “apostate” she would use it to describe the Shi’a. The Shi’a are misguided. They have left the true faith.
“The Qur’an talks about Isa and Mary,” Aamilah says, and shows me the passage in its beautiful Arabic script. This comes after I have tried to explain the Catholic belief that Mary remained a virgin her whole life versus the Protestant belief that Mary married Joseph after Jesus was born and had several more children with him. “Yosef?” she says, confused. She has never heard of him. “Virgin?” she asks, the word clearly foreign, clunky in her mouth. “You know,” I say, “uh…did not have sex yet.” I say the word “sex” as if it is clearly foreign, afraid that maybe it will offend her. “What?” she asks, and so I repeat myself several times until she says, “Oh, yes! She was made to have pregnant by God! Yes, the Qur’an says this.”
An angel had to tell Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy, I continue. Otherwise, he would have divorced her. Aamilah interrupts me. “In-jeel?” she asks. “Yes, angel,” I say. I try to explain that angels are messengers of God. “Ah!” she says. “Messengers of God! Yes, I know this. The Qur’an—in-jeel? The Bible—in-jeel?” What a lovely idea, I think, books as angels. But when I try to explain the difference between message and messenger, the conversation breaks down. Allah doesn’t have angels, apparently. How do you describe an angel—a ‘being of Light’? What does that mean?
Aamilah begins to press. My explanations of Christianity have been tempered with “Christians believe.” She wants to know what I believe. But how can I begin to explain my nuanced, New-Age, Buddhist version of Christianity? She has never heard of Buddhism. “Bood…boodism?” she tries out the word. I’m at a loss. “We can talk about that next time,” I say.
But the next time, she has written on her iPhone a history of the prophet Muhammad; I hunch over the screen with her, correcting her grammar and learning that Islam most certainly has an angel tradition. The angel Jibreel opened baby Muhammad's chest and took the black bits from his heart. But Aamilah pronounces angel “angle,” while Injil is the Arabic word for Gospel, the message—thus the confusion of the week before. The “angle Jibreel” visited Muhammad again, when the boy had grown, to give him the Qur'an, the inspired words of Allah. I imagine Jibreel as a corner, surrounded by a host of angels bent acute, obtuse, perpendicular.
In this moment, Aamilah is herself Injil, a holy message, her excitement about her religion and her love for her Prophet and his wife Khadija shining in her eyes.
I love the way I believe in, too, but working with Aamilah has made me even more aware of how strange these beliefs are, ungrounded in tradition or history. Christians would look at my version of Christianity as Aamilah sees the Shi’a Muslims, a dangerous misinterpretation of the one true religion. How can my scrap-heap of beliefs ever compare to her faith, so grounded in community that entire cities grow silent to hear the call to prayer sung from the spires of the mosque? How can I explain a belief system based on love?
“Do you feel, uh…love for Allah?”
“Oh, yes!” she nods. “I love Allah!”
“And do you feel love from him, that he loves you?”
“Oh, yes!” she says. “He loves us if we pray and are good Muslims.”
I don’t ask “What if you’re not good?” I will not press. This woman seems content, happy, grounded. She will return to her country this summer and travel to Mecca with her family for Ramadan. She speaks of this month of fasting, prayer, and devotion with longing. God is great, the call to prayer begins. Allahu Akbar. God is great, God is great, God is great, God is great. They break the fast each night of Ramadan with dates, she tells me. I eat another date. This date is great, I think. Praise God.
 Here’s what happened. At a lull in the dialogue, she asked if I had any questions about Saudi Arabia, and the first and only thing I could think of was that a man I dated for awhile had lived in Saudi Arabia and seen public beheadings. He described the experience to me, clearly still shaken by it. I shouldn’t have asked Aamilah about it, but it did lead to some new vocabulary for her as I tried to explain the prison and execution system here in the U.S. I drew a little courtroom, with stick-figures of judge, lawyers, and jury. I drew a stick man in a prison. I spelled out the words ‘criminal’ and ‘death penalty’ and ‘prosecute’ and ‘represent.’ I asked if she ever watched “Law & Order.” She hadn’t.
Growing up in a conservative, evangelical Protestant scene, I was taught to pray “not my will, but Thine.” No way, I thought. What’s the point of prayer if you’re going to let God do what he wants to anyway? Asking for God’s Will also terrified me; as far as I could tell, God’s Will demanded suffering. God’s Will wanted to destroy all the “chaff” of my own desires and teach me humility. God’s Will was a nasty little soldier running around trying to ruin everyone’s lives for their own good.
Based on the books I read and people I knew, I was afraid that God’s Will for my life would involve one or more of the following:
· To eat the pus of lepers (to teach me that serving others is even more rewarding than not eating pus)
· To be a missionary killed by the natives (to teach me, posthumously I guess, the joy of giving my life so that others might be saved—because once natives kill you, they’ll surely repent and read the Bibles you gave them)
· To be tortured for my beliefs (to teach me that I can get through anything if I sing hymns)
· To hit my head when diving & become a quadriplegic (to teach me that I don’t need arms and legs to do God’s Will; I can learn to draw beautiful pictures with my teeth, for example)
· To accidentally fall in love with an old, fat man (to teach me that appearance isn’t important)
· To never marry or have a family (to teach me that my happiness comes from loving God, not from the fulfillment of my most cherished lifelong dream)
· To have a severely handicapped baby (to teach me humility)
· To die (to teach me that this world is nothing and that God is everything)
Clearly, the God of my childhood was worth running from. And His Will? Will was his vengeance, his hit-man, his thug.
A friend told me recently, “You’re still thinking about God as being Out There. But God’s in you, God is you.”
A book I’m reading says to think of God as “an electric current, endowed with supreme intelligence. This ‘electric current’ is there, in you, around you, outside of yourself.”
Sounds great, right? If God is part of me, what’s to fear? God’s Will is, essentially, My Will. But the fear quickly returns. In this version of spirituality, it’s not God who sabotages you: it’s your fear-energy. Your unconscious fears disrupt the “God-flow” and manifest stuff you don’t want. Can’t have a baby? Your unconscious fears of having children are shutting down your uterus. Can’t meet a loving partner? Your unconscious belief systems about partnership are working against you. Blinded by a chemical spill at age 8? You contracted for this experience before you were born, hoping, perhaps, for heightened senses and wicked martial arts skills.
In other words, your problems are your fault; you can work to expose and correct these unconscious influences, but in the end, your crappy circumstances are of your own making.
So that kind of sucks. It’s like saying, “That dog will attack you if you show any fear.” If you can’t calm your fear, it’s your own fault if that dog bites off half of your face.
The Christ Within talks about using the God-flow in us to transform any of our life circumstances or situations into a “state of grace,” in which the holiness in us blesses that situation and we are led, through gentle, intuitive impressions, to bring about that situation’s highest good.
If we surrender a particular situation to the God within us, promising to let go of our sense of limitation, our false perceptions, and the will of our personality, promising to listen for and follow our feeling nature, we will thus enter a state of grace and invite into our lives our highest good. Well, okay, I thought. Maybe I can do that.
Maybe God’s Will is the deepest and purest part of myself, and maybe this Will’s urges are not in service of self-sacrifice but of self-actualization and self-expression and a surrender of all anxiety about what other people think.
Maybe God’s Will is a flowering, a full manifestation of my particular personality in this particular lifetime. Or maybe God’s Will is simply to experience—to be here in this world of illusion and to embrace it lightly, gracefully.
In the end, bad stuff doesn’t come from God. It comes from fear. But instead of getting stuck in the fear of what my unconscious (or the collective unconscious!) will manifest, I can surrender it all to my highest good and focus instead on what I can access: the conscious fears. For example, my anxiety often compromises my well-being: I avoid painful conversations, I try not to ‘bother’ people with my problems, I say yes when I’d rather say no. The process of changing this default, of living in a state of grace rather than a state of tension, can feel difficult and frightening. After all, “God’s Will” might be that I actually ‘speak my truth’ or, worse, say no. But I can trust the outcome if I trust that God’s Will is part of me, that it manifests only freedom and wishes for me only joy.
 St. Francis of Assisi
 Elisabeth Elliot’s husband
 Countless martyrs I read and watched movies about as a child.
 Joni Eareckson Tada
 Couples who said things like, “I wasn’t attracted to him at all, but then I got to know him.” It would be so God, I thought, to trick me into falling in love with a man who grossed me out. Another church message: the more attractive person of a couple is holier than the rest of us who care about looks.
 A few single church women I knew and tried my hardest to avoid, afraid they’d rub off on me.
 I would like to apologize for this fear to the parents of disabled children. I would also like to believe that I would whole-heartedly love and take pride in any child who came into my life.
 We shouldn’t talk about God because He’s everywhere, my 3rd grade classmate said, pointing at her vagina. Even here.
 The Pathwork of Self-Transformation, by Eva Pierrakos
 A CD from the Sacred Garden Fellowship
 This is a very mild example of the effects of fear. Maybe another post will delve into the whole, “why do bad things happen?” debate.